A Portrait of the Boss As a Young Man: On Bruce Springsteen's First Seven Albums
The go-for-broke inspiration Bruce Springsteen became legendary for providing in his songs initially sprang from the most authentic source: himself.
There is one key question that arises whenever a new box set of previously-available material is released: is it necessary?
With Bruce Springsteen's eight-disc The Album Collection Vol. 1: 1973-1984, the answer is an unequivocal, "Yes!" For one thing, five of these seven albums have, unbelievably, never been remastered. For those of us who own the original CD pressings, or have not particularly fond memories of how they sounded on vinyl or especially cassette incarnations, this sonic overhaul is not only very worthwhile but quite overdue.
Take it from an old-school Springsteen fan: the clarity on these reissues is game-changing. If it’s now obligatory, when talking remasters, to mention sounds never before heard and nuance not previously detectable, all of the usual, positive accolades apply here. The two that needed this treatment most, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. and The River, in some ways sound like new albums. Presumably, Bruce disciples need no cajoling, but anyone on the fence can be reassured that this is not the typical window dressing disguised as an (expensive) upgrade. These suckers needed some TLC, and now they’ve gotten it.
A (very) few words about the accompanying booklet: it is underwhelming, to put it kindly. No interviews, no essays, no new nuggets of information or detail about the various recording session are included. None of these things are imperative for the box set's success, but considering that such features usually accompany reissues of this sort, and Springsteen has so much history to pore over, these omissions are curious at best. Aforementioned sonic upgrades aside, and taking into account the cost of this set, the bust of a booklet is a bit of an embarrassment. That said, it’s all about the music, and this music is more than capable of telling its own story.
Those Romantic Young Boys
Believe it or not, Bruce Springsteen wasn’t always the Boss. In fact, he paid persistent and less-than-productive dues for years as a work-in-progress. The breakthrough success of Born to Run, which landed him on the covers of Time and Newsweek in 1975, seems inevitable, even preordained. The reality is that fame and fortune were elusive, and by the time his debut dropped in 1973, he was an exceedingly experienced veteran of tiny clubs up and down the east coast.
Knowing what was to come, his uneven but promising first two albums reveal the work of an audacious if imperfectly formed voice. More than anything else, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. and The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle convey the enthusiasm we still associate with Springsteen’s legendary live performances. It’s a passion for creating, playing, and connecting that could scarcely be contained by hit singles or three-hour concerts.
Critically embraced but unable to catch fire commercially, his debut is really more like a first novel than a first album. The young narrator is trying to cram together everything he’s witnessed, everything he’s tasted, smelled, imagined and dreamed about. At times the explorations feel ill-suited to the format, shoehorned as they are into three-and-four-minute snippets of song. Of course, there were the unavoidable -- and not entirely unwarranted -- comparisons to Bob Dylan. For the most part, however, these early songs sound less like an homage to his hero than an experiment to see how many marbles he can fit into his mouth (see: “Blinded by the Light” and “For You”).
Interestingly, as it was released during the same year, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. is rather like a toned-down Quadrophenia for the Jersey Shore, with its litany of losers, hustlers, teenage theatrics and the tension between masculinity and creativity and how, if harnessed with sufficient care and talent, it can be translated into sensitive art. Occasionally indulgent (“Mary Queen of Arkansas”), sometimes anthemic (“Growing Up”, “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City”), it’s when there is a lack of self-consciousness that Springsteen hints at perfection (“Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street?”).
The one-two punch of “Spirit in the Night” and “Lost in the Flood” combines many of the obsessions Springsteen would spend the rest of his albums investigating: haunted veterans of real or imagined wars, along with hoodrats and wannabe heroes with goofy nicknames (Wild Billy, Hazy Davy). In an album full of fantastic lines (“I said ‘I’m Hurt’ she said ‘Honey, let me heal it’” and “Tainted women in VistaVision perform for out-of-state kids at the late show”), the young boss delivers an opening salvo that would become his aesthetic Holy Grail: “And I swear I found the key to the universe in the engine of an old parked car."
For his follow-up, The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle, it’s a double-down of sorts, more Van Morrison than Bob Dylan, more funk than folk, more sounds than words. In most regards, this is all for the best; with hindsight, we see how things were moving irresistibly to the bigger and more brazen enterprise of Born to Run. We get another program full of characters (Sandy, Kitty, Rosalita, Spanish Johnny, Puerto Rican Jane, etc.) looking for love, or each other, or themselves, etc. A little of this goes a long way, and since there’s a lot of it, we can see how and why Springsteen struggled with ways to harness and hone his indefatigable determination.
On The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle, there is more attention to detail, and the musicians, especially the brilliant keyboardist David Sancious, get plenty of space to stretch and assert themselves. Bruce, who gets less credit than he deserves as a lead guitarist, does some tasteful shredding on “Kitty’s Back”, and the use of strings (“New York City Serenade”) and both tuba and accordion (“Wild Billy’s Circus Story”) give the proceedings a panoramic sweep. If the debut at times sounds like a cherry bomb inside a soda can, the follow-up is the soundtrack of summer evenings on a fire escape after the rain stops.
If it wasn’t for the masterworks that followed, certain songs on this album would likely be more highly regarded. Certainly we have the concert-friendly “Rosalita” and “Kitty’s Back”, as well as the ebullient and odd obscurities of the title track and “Wild Billy’s Circus Story”. “New York City Serenade” strains for profundity and, with the aforementioned finesse of Sancious, it nearly succeeds.
“Incident on 57th Street”, on the other hand, is a abundantly-realized mini opera. This is the first instance where one can imagine even Van the Man and Dylan perking up an eyebrow and thinking “Who the hell is this kid?” Likewise, “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)” is at once a summation of what Bruce was trying to do to that point and a preview of the muscle-ballads to come. (The song also has arguably best line of the album: “Did you hear the cops finally busted Madam Marie for tellin’ fortunes better than they do?”) Even though neither album was enough to put him over the top, it’s hard to claim anyone had a more productive, enduring year than Springsteen did in 1973.
The Promised Land
In a rather counterintuitive turn of events, the fact that the first two albums didn’t make as much noise as they could (or should) have ended up being the best possible thing that could have happened for Springsteen as an artist and us as an audience. Instead of packing it in, Springsteen quadrupled down and spent many subsequent months agonizing over every second of every new song, making the recording that ensured nobody would ever forget his name.
As has been amply documented, it was the lack of big-time success that ultimately convinced Bruce he had to put not only his oversized heart, but his mind, his soul and bone marrow into a tour de force no 25 year old had any business making. It could be said that the go-for-broke inspiration the Boss became legendary for providing in his songs initially sprang from the most authentic source: himself. As he grappled with how to translate the music he heard in his head, he gradually attained the ideal balance of more-is-more lyrics and epic scope with rawest and most honest emotion. The resultant material revolves around a theme that is basic as it is elusive: everyone wants to be fulfilled.
Every element comes together in the creation of rock’s mid-decade and post-Watergate response to the American Dream. Unlike his first two albums, where the narrators and heroes are kids in the midst of chasing shadows, making mistakes, or trying to escape their environment, on Born to Run, many of the protagonists have already seen and done enough to know that, for them, drastic action is required. There is an air of regret mixed with a not-yet extinguished defiance: the dream, whatever it may entail, is not quite dead. Thus the Romeo in “Thunder Road” declaring “it’s a town full of losers and I’m pulling out of here to win” and the defiance of the title track “we can live with sadness / I’ll love you with all the madness in my soul” and the affirmations of dudes and/or bandleaders knowing they got what they wanted in “She’s the One” and “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out”.
There are also those unlikely to get away or win, those who already have the deck stacked against them and are either unable or unwilling to acknowledge it. Despite the driving pulse of "Night”, where the everyman escapes the daily boil of his dead-end job and irksome commute to simply feel alive by driving off to nowhere at night with the yellow lines racing by beneath him, we know these flights are fleeting.
While the restrained bordering on elegiac musical backdrop (just piano, bass, and a killer trumpet cameo by Randy Brecker) on “Meeting Across the River” strains in its solemn way to make a hero out of this nobody, the tension of the song is that while he stands to score two grand, there is just as good a chance that he is about to get whacked. The track neither ironic nor patronizing; the action (the song’s working title was “The Heist”) is relayed from this guy’s point of view (“Tonight’s gonna be everything that I said”), and there is little doubt what’s at stake: “We got ourselves out on that line”. We don’t get to find out what happens, and whether the setting is 1975, 1875, or 2025, we don’t really need to.
What else? Not much, except this masterpiece arguably has the best opening and closing songs of any album, ever. With “Thunder Road”, Springsteen condenses a full record (a full movie, really) into just under five minutes. Getting a proper handle on “Jungleland” would require more than a paragraph or even a full review, really. I took a crack at it a few years back, and even that feature hardly does it justice.
And there it is: after a couple of tentative years as an apprentice, this is when Bruce became the Boss, and regardless of how you feel about everything that followed, the work here sufficiently secures his status for all time.